Tuesday, 30 August 2016

RIP Gene Wilder

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In case it wasn't abundantly clear by now, 2016 is becoming a bumper year for the Grim Reaper, at least as far as film stars and celebrities are concerned. Having already deprived us of David Bowie, Alan RickmanHarper Lee and Douglas Slocombe, the black-cloaked figure has now claimed Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83 after a three-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

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Most of the tributes towards Wilder - real name Jerome Silberman - have focussed on his iconic performance as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But while I've always been a fan of Wilder's work, I've mostly been a fan of him in spite of that film, which I have generally considered to be enormously overrated. I won't go into detail here at the risk of sounding churlish or disrespectful - I'll be revisiting the superior Tim Burton version in due course - but the kindest thing I can say about it is that Wilder's performance has endured far better than the rest of the film.
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Instead, my fondness for Wilder is firmly rooted in his work with Mel Brooks. The pair collaborated on three films between 1968 and 1974, all of which remain classics of both their period and the comedy genre. The Producers remains a sparkling satire of musical theatre and politics, with Wilder playing off Zero Mostel and Kenneth Mars with perfect timing. In Blazing Saddles, he provides the perfect foil for Cleavon Little - an actor who deserved a much stronger career in light of that performance. And in Young Frankenstein - arguably his finest hour - he balanced intensity with clowning to masterfully lead one of the best horror parodies of all time.
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Wilder may have grown increasingly disinterested towards Hollywood in recent years, last acting on the big screen in 1991 and saying that he was "tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D". But even outside of Brooks' back catalogue, his influence looms large on the history of comedy. He's one of the best things about Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), and his writing and direction on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother  is very admirable. He was, by all accounts, a deeply decent man and is a great loss to the world of film.
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If you want to pay tribute to Wilder without resorting to Willy Wonka (sorry), I recommend a double bill of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. If you want something more dramatic, try Bonnie and Clyde, in which he has a small but noticeable role. Failing all that, check out this half-hour interview with him in 2013, in what turned out to be one of his final public appearances. RIP.

Daniel

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